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Rishi Sunak learned “in a timely manner” of the arrest of a parliamentary researcher accused of spying for China, but continued to step up engagement with Beijing.

Government insiders told the Financial Times that Sunak and Foreign Secretary James Cleverley were informed of the Metropolitan Police operation shortly after their arrest in March.

Downing Street and the Foreign Office declined to give a specific date. Security sources said senior ministers would be notified quickly of such incidents, especially if they involve parliament.

The researcher’s arrest has become a political issue for Sunak as Conservative MPs with a hardline stance on China use it as ammunition to attack the prime minister’s policy of engaging with the country.

Sunak’s new approach has been underway since March, when the UK government labeled China an “epochal challenge” rather than a “threat” in a defense review. In April, Cleverly laid out the case for “strong” and “constructive” engagement with Beijing in a speech.

Last month, the British Foreign Secretary visited Beijing, the first such high-level visit by a British official to China since 2018. British officials described the visit as a major step to repair bilateral relations after five years of frost.

Hawkish Tory MPs have pressed hard to know which ministers knew what and when, questioning why Cleverly would have continued traveling to Beijing if he knew about the arrest.

But several former security officials have defended Britain’s persistence in China policy despite alleged espionage in the British parliament. Sir Richard Dearlove, the former director of MI6, said: “The government will not – and should not – base its China policy on a single espionage case.”

He said Sunak, Cleverley and Home Secretary Zuela Braverman would be informed of the spy’s arrest “relatively soon”.

Lord Kim Darroch, David Cameron’s former national security adviser, also stressed that ministers would not be surprised by allegations that Beijing was trying to plant spies in the heart of Westminster.

“The Chinese have been spying on us for a long time, stealing our trade secrets, stealing our intellectual property, conducting cyber attacks. This is not new to me,” Darroch said, though he added that he could understand why the Chinese would Interested in discussions within the Conservative Party about the government’s policy towards Beijing.

According to people familiar with the matter, the researcher arrested in March had been in contact with Conservative MPs before he was appointed security minister, including Alicia Kearns, the chair of the Conservative Foreign Affairs Committee, and Tom Tom Tugendhat.

The former researcher denies spying for China, and prosecutors have not yet decided whether to charge him.

Last year, MI5 took the unusual step of issuing an alert about “political interference activity” in Parliament and labeling lawyer Christine Lee an “influence agent”. She denies the accusations and took legal action against MI5 in July.

A government insider told the Financial Times that ministers were sensitive to ongoing interference or espionage activities against the UK by a range of countries. They said it was Britain’s long-term policy to raise the issue with these countries repeatedly “so they know we are aware and we will be vigilant about it”.

“Like many allies, we recognize this and have a clear understanding of China’s foreign policy. This is part of the equation for us to recognize it, raise it and constantly guard against it,” the person said.

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